Mental Health Becomes a Federal Priority

In a quest to better understand the status of mental health care in the United States, Congress adopted the Mental Health Study Act of 1955 (Public Law 84-182) to conduct a comprehensive nationwide analysis of mental health needs, both human and economic. Led by psychiatrists Kenneth Appel and Leo Bartemeier, the Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health was made up of 36 organizations representing many disciplines and areas of professional interest (Ewalt, 1957). During its three-year mandate, the Joint Commission conducted a broad set of inquiries ranging from the nature and prevalence of mental disorders, mental health promotion in the community, and importantly, detailed study of private and public mental hospitals that included personnel issues, organization, administration, available treatments, and patient outcomes. A final report, Action for Mental Health (Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, 1961) assessed the scope of mental health conditions and resources nationwide. Highly critical of state mental institutions for having “defaulted on adequate care for the mentally ill” (Torrey, 2014), the Joint Commission recommended that community mental health centers should be established to coordinate future mental health care, and advocated for greater federal involvement in the care of people with mental illness. The Kennedy administration established a Cabinet-level interagency committee to determine an appropriate federal response to the report (

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